Stop Breaking the Rules! by Kevin McManus
First published in Industrial Engineer magazine February 2006
The game of business, like any competitive venture, requires rules to help ensure that human and mechanical performances meet expectations. Policies, procedures, company missions, and regulations all exist for this purpose. Additionally, we rely on rules to help keep people from getting hurt by our processes, products, and services. In spite of this need for rules, and the myriad of rules that exist in most organizations, we still find that people tend to break the rules all too often.
We undo our seatbelts on an airplane before the light goes out. We drive faster than the posted speed limit. We take shortcuts at work to help meet production quotas. We base our decisions to leave work on when our boss leaves instead of on the time that has been established. Why do we do this? Why do human beings have such a preference for breaking the rules? Do we simply fail to see the importance of these rules, or do we usually seem to have a good reason for violating laws, policies, and procedures?
My work and life experiences have shown me that there are two main reasons why people often break the rules. In some cases, they break rules because they have to. In other words, in order to make production quotas, sales goals, or service needs, some rules seem like they must be broken. While I don’t like to admit it, I have seen people break safety rules to keep the production line running. I have broken the rules myself in order to save time while traveling. As Deming stated, most people come to work wanting to do a good job, and in order to do a good job as it has been defined by company leadership, sometimes certain rules have to be broken.
In other cases, people break the rules because they see little value in adhering to them and they know that groups such as management have a limited ability to enforce them anyway. For example, have you seen a company institute a ‘no smoking on the job’ policy even though most of their people work alone in the field where rule enforcers are seldom found? There are also times where rules seem to be created for no reason other than making sure that everyone does not make the same mistake that a very small percentage of the workforce has just made. Have you ever seen a new rule about lunch breaks be created simply because one particular work group chose to consistently stretch their own lunch breaks an extra five minutes or so?
As managers, there are a variety of things that we can do to help reduce the percentage of time that our people choose to break the rules. From a lean perspective, the best place to start can be found in looking at the approaches we currently use to explain and enforce rule adherence. Our tendency is to rely heavily on meetings, e-mails, bulletin board postings, and training sessions to help people better understand why rules exist, and why they need to be followed. We assume that if we tell people what we need to have done, and share with them our own logic for supporting this need, each employee will choose to do the right thing. Unfortunately, these approaches often fail to produce the desired result, even though we invest lots of money in their use.
One key reason these approaches fail is that we as management fail to walk the talk. We say one thing in the meetings or in our written communications, and then we act differently on a day to day basis. We say that safety is our number one priority, but we invest most of our time, energy, and emotion in stressing the need to get the job done as quickly as possible. We emphasize the need for quality and customer satisfaction in print, and then make decisions that fly in the face of this stated need. We say that people are our greatest asset, and then choose to invest our limited capital and expense monies making improvements that either benefit only a small group of people or fail to address an important workforce need.
Because we fail at times to truly act as a management team, we introduce further incentive to break the rules. We fail to recognize the inconsistency between different rules that we put in place, and we seem to ignore the capabilities of our processes themselves. We expect people to consistently improve their performance in all areas of importance simply because we ask them to, even when the work processes as they are designed do not have the mathematical capability of attaining significant gains in quality, safety, cost, output, and morale simultaneously. By behaving this way, we are in essence asking people to break the rules in order to help us attain our goals – we just don’t want to know about it.
In sports, we rely heavily on referees, umpires, and even instant replay to help make sure that most rules of the game are consistently followed. We use penalty flags to make it clear when rules are broken, and we have clearly defined consequences that vary in severity based on the rule that is broken. In most cases, these rules are applied consistently across all teams and team members, no matter what their individual status may be. Our approaches to enforcement however in the world of work are much weaker. In most cases, we simply ask or tell people what they should and should not do, and hope that they do that we say. Instead of improving our enforcement systems and doing a much better job of clearly defining the consequences (both positive and negative) of rule violation, we simply define the boundaries and hope that we are there to catch people when they cross them.
I believe that by comparing sports enforcement systems to work enforcement systems, we can find some possible clues for reducing the frequency with which our people break the rules. If most people do come to work wanting to do a good job as Deming states, let’s do a better job of defining what really constitutes a good job and let’s recognize people in a positive manner when they do meet these expectations. We should involve our people in searching for ways to better explain our rules and why they are needed. If our current enforcement systems are relatively weak, let’s utilize our diverse human resources to help identify ways of better ensuring that the rules that are truly important can be consistently followed.
Most importantly, we should expect all of our leaders, regardless of their position in the organization, to follow the same rules that we expect our front line people to follow. We should have mechanisms in place to gauge the degree to which their behavior meets the rules that have been defined. If we want our people to behave properly, we should set the proper example, avoid establishing goals that conflict with each other, and make decisions that are consistent with what we expect of those that work for us. Which rules do you follow and which rules do you break? Why do you break the rules?
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“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates